What is the Audiolingual Method?

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful.

The Audiolingual Method of teaching languages was popular in the mid-20th Century in the United States. The most well-known examples today are the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) courses freely available on the Internet (because their copyrights have expired) or available for purchase from Barron’s “Mastering” series, Monolingual Books, and other sources. But some are university textbooks, such as Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al., Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis, and Beginning Japanese: Part 1 by Jorden and Chaplin. Many of these courses are taught using the Latin alphabet rather than the language’s writing system, though separate readers are available to learn to read the language.

When completing a course, learners know a thousand or two thousand words and a lot of grammar. They can’t use the language yet (in conversation, for example), but if they continue their studies independently or in a country where the language is spoken, they can allegedly learn very quickly, having already mastered the grammar. That is, they can focus on meaning–having already mastered the form–instead of having to think about both at the same time. In short, a learner using an audiolingual course starts off learning more slowly than someone using a modern method, but has the potential of surpassing other learners later. The tortoise transforms into a hare–eventually, after completing a long, tedious course. I believe it because I learned French grammar first in high school and college and couldn’t use the language, but later I could master French through reading, listening, and conversation and ignore the grammar because I already knew it.

The method was designed to be used with a teacher, a class of students, a textbook, an audio recording with hundreds of hours of audio, a language lab (because MP3 players and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and these courses were originally recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape) and some homework. Nowadays, some ambitious language learners like myself use them independently, but keep in mind that they were intended to be used with the support and guidance of a teacher.

Here’s the method: Memorize one or more dialogs which include examples of the new vocabulary and grammar taught in the chapter. Memorize it really well before continuing through the chapter! The better you memorize it, the less stressful the grammar drills will be. Also read the dialog’s notes and the chapter’s grammar explanations, but only as much as you find them helpful—that is, they aren’t the primary means of learning grammar. Then do a lot of grammar drills with the teacher and again with the audio recordings, using the textbook sparingly. That is, the drills are mostly audio. Everything is spoken at native speed even from the first or second lesson, so that you can get used to the rhythm, accent, intonation, etc. (prosody) and so that you can understand native speakers sooner. At the end of each chapter, for review, the course may or may not direct you to translate sentences and/or engage in extremely limited conversation activities.

The grammar drills are of various types. In Transformation Drills, the teacher or recording says a list of sentences and asks learners to make them negative, change them into questions, or change them in some other way. In Substitution Drills–the most common type–the teacher says a sentence and then a word. The learners take a word out of the sentence and put the new word in, changing word endings as needed to make the new sentence grammatically correct. In Expansion Drills, the teacher starts with a very short sentence, then keeps adding phrases to make longer and longer sentences.

The method is based on the behaviorist approach to psychology: Repetition and correction were believed to be the way to learn any skill, even grammar. Behaviorism is no longer commonly accepted, but the better audiolingual courses continue to be useful nonetheless. They provide many example sentences to demonstrate each grammatical form and force learners to speak and listen at native speed.

There are exceptions–such as the FSI Korean course because of weaknesses in its design and because Korean grammar has actually changed a little in half-a-century. Since FSI courses were designed for foreign service personnel, they use formal registers of speech–which is not a problem in most languages, but I think it is a problem in Korean. Native Korean speakers say they don’t talk anything like the FSI Korean course teaches.

Also, some FSI courses (notably for Portuguese) use a “programmed” method which involves listening to a lot of short language segments and selecting answers in order to make learners notice features in grammar and pronunciation. Programmed courses can still be helpful for complete beginners but they are designed very differently than the courses I’ve been describing. FSI also has pronunciation courses for French and Arabic, which are freely available for download from websites such as Yojik. I’ve never used them, so I can’t review them.

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful. The Russian grammar I’m the most comfortable with is the grammar I learned from Modern Russian 1. I could understand Japanese native speakers more easily after completing a few chapters of Beginning Japanese: Part 1. And now I’m studying Beginning Chinese because of its use of sentence build-ups to give me practice with very short sentences before I have to learn to pronounce longer ones (and because the course includes optional books which teach Chinese characters gradually with a lot of review).

In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.

One thought on “What is the Audiolingual Method?”

  1. I learned Cantonese at a junior college from the FSI series. Previously I had Studied Russian and German in High school, but didn’t really learn or retain a lot. When I started studying Cantonese I did twice the required language lab hours and bought the tapes and studied at home. Class was Saturday morning and after class I went to San Francisco’s Chinatown to practice. Now I feel like the main problem with other language courses is that they are not FSI.
    I’m wondering, what are these “modern methods” you refer to? I don’t really think the audio lingual method has been supplanted at all, just supplemented.

    Liked by 1 person

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